Mindfulness or Buddhist Spirituality for Sale? A Call for True Independence

BL00 -Spirituality for Sale

By Mo Edjlali, Mindful Leader Founder and CEO

As we reflect on freedom and self-determination, we must examine the state of mindfulness in our society. Our field is experiencing a concerning decline and facing growing criticism. Something is fundamentally off, and this article aims to explore one of the potential reasons contributing to this blowback.

Since 2009, when I became involved in this field, the mindfulness industry has experienced significant growth, benefiting millions while blurring the lines between secular practices and Buddhist traditions. This rapid expansion demands our critical attention and raises an important question: Are we offering mindfulness as a universal means for improved well-being, or are we inadvertently promoting Buddhism under a secular guise?

It's time for mindfulness to address its Buddhist entanglement. This elephant in the room has gone under-addressed. We stand at a pivotal moment where the future of mindfulness depends on its ability to establish itself as a truly secular, independent practice - one that acknowledges its Buddhist roots but remains free from Buddhist dogma, stealth Buddhist influence, or the inappropriate commercialization of spirituality and Buddhist teachings.

The Secular Mindfulness Proposition: Untethering from Buddhism

At Mindful Leader, we believe mindfulness can and should be separated from its Buddhist origins. Mindfulness is an innate human capacity, not the exclusive property of Buddhism. While Buddhist teachings brought mindfulness to prominence and contributed to the foundation of modern mindfulness, it is a universal human trait that belongs to all people.

We advocate for a form of mindfulness that, while acknowledging its Buddhist inspiration, remains truly secular. This approach allows us to draw from diverse influences while maintaining a strictly non-religious framework.

This separation isn't just beneficial for secular practitioners – it's crucial for preserving the integrity of both mindfulness and Buddhism. Prominent scholars have raised important concerns about the current state of mindfulness in secular settings:

Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, has criticized "stealth Buddhism" in her book "Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?" Her research identifies Buddhist concepts and practices that often infiltrate supposedly secular mindfulness programs, raising questions about religious neutrality in public spaces. Brown's work comprehensively analyzes how ostensibly secular mindfulness programs can subtly introduce religious elements, particularly in educational settings.

Dr. Ron Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University, popularized "McMindfulness" in his book "McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality." Purser's work examines the commodification and oversimplification of mindfulness practices, arguing that they've been stripped of their ethical and spiritual contexts to serve corporate interests. His critique explores how the mindfulness industry has adapted Buddhist practices to fit a neoliberal, individualistic framework, potentially undermining its transformative potential.

We agree with these scholarly observations: Buddhism should be called Buddhism and taught under its own traditions and ethical frameworks. At the same time, secular mindfulness should not be a watered-down, commercialized version of Buddhist practices.

Mindfulness, in its secular form, should not be Buddhism in disguise. While it can derive insights from Buddhist traditions, it must ultimately be independent. This approach allows us to develop rigorous, evidence-based mindfulness practices accessible to all, regardless of religious beliefs, while avoiding cultural appropriation or spiritual capitalism.

Benefits of Clear Delineation

Selling stealth Buddhism in any form is problematic and goes against the essence of both Buddhist practice and secular mindfulness. We at Mindful Leader stand firmly against commercializing Buddhist teachings disguised as secular mindfulness.

This isn't just about preserving the integrity of mindfulness – it's about maintaining the purity of Buddhism and resisting the creation of a deceptive commercial Buddhist marketplace that dilutes both. This separation between secular mindfulness and Buddhist traditions serves everyone:

  • Buddhist traditions retain their depth and richness, free from dilution or misappropriation.
  • Secular mindfulness gains the opportunity to develop its own intuitions, teachings, evidence-based practices, and ethical frameworks.
  • Practitioners benefit from increased clarity, empowering them to make informed choices about their practice.

The Role of Contemplative Practice and Individual Interpretation

While we advocate for this clear separation, it's important to address the role of contemplative practice and the potential for profound personal experiences within a secular mindfulness context.

Contemplative practices involving deep reflection and introspection are a key component of mindfulness. These practices can lead to significant insights, emotional breakthroughs, or experiences that some might describe as spiritual or transcendent. However, the interpretation of these experiences is deeply personal and subjective.

In our aspiration for secular mindfulness:

  • We recognize that individuals may have powerful, contemplative experiences during mindfulness practice.
  • We acknowledge that these experiences can be deeply meaningful and potentially life-changing.
  • We maintain that it is not our role to interpret or label these experiences for the individual.
  • We refrain from coloring these experiences with spiritual or religious overtones.

Our stance is clear: we provide the tools and techniques for mindfulness practice, but the meaning-making process belongs to the individual. Participants may have an experience they consider spiritual, therapeutic, purely mental, or simply an interesting moment of self-discovery. All of these interpretations are valid and respected.

This approach allows for personal autonomy, inclusivity, authenticity, and scientific integrity. We're not claiming that mindfulness is devoid of profound experiences. Rather, we're emphasizing that the individual alone has the right and responsibility to decide what these experiences mean to them.

The Promise of Secular Mindfulness: A Universal Framework for Human Flourishing

Secular mindfulness holds immense potential as a unifying force for humanity. It offers a universal, inclusive framework that transcends borders, political divides, and religious beliefs. By focusing on evidence-based practices and principles, secular mindfulness provides a practical approach to addressing our shared human experiences of suffering and growth.

This approach can bring people together in communities of practice, fostering understanding and compassion across diverse backgrounds. As we face global challenges, secular mindfulness emerges as a beacon of hope - a common language for inner exploration and outer change. It equips us with tools to navigate the complexities of modern life, enhance our well-being, and cultivate resilience.

By embracing secular mindfulness, we open the door to a future where people from all walks of life can unite to pursue greater awareness, empathy, and collective wisdom. This shared practice has the potential to bridge divides, nurture global citizenship, and contribute to solutions for our most pressing societal issues.

It's time to take a bold step forward to fulfill this promise. We must cultivate a new landscape of truly secular and independent mindfulness teaching, institutions, and leadership. While we acknowledge and respect the historical roots of mindfulness in Buddhist traditions, the time has come for secular mindfulness to stand on its own.

We envision mindfulness institutions grounded in science, psychology, and secular ethics, guided by teachers whose expertise stems from rigorous, non-religious training and research. This approach will foster a truly inclusive, secular practice that can resonate with people of all backgrounds and beliefs, free from religious or spiritual prerequisites.

We stand at a critical juncture in human history, facing unprecedented existential threats ranging from the looming climate crisis to the specter of global conflict. Yet, paradoxically, we also find ourselves on the cusp of a technologically enabled age of potential abundance. In this context of extreme challenges and remarkable opportunities, secular mindfulness emerges as a vital tool for cultivating the collective wisdom and resilience necessary to navigate our complex future.

But this can only happen if we have the courage to chart our own course, independent of Buddhism or other dominant religious influences. Secular mindfulness offers a path toward a more conscious, connected, and compassionate world.

As we conclude, we invite you to reflect on two challenging questions:

  1. If mindfulness programs in your workplace or community subtly promote Buddhist concepts, are you comfortable with this? How would you feel if it were another religion's teachings being introduced under the guise of secular practice?
  2. Can secular mindfulness truly reach its full potential as a unifying force for humanity while remaining tethered to Buddhist traditions and teachers? What might we gain - or lose - by fully separating the two?

Please share your thoughts.

Welcome to our Wackfulness: The unexamined, sometimes silly, side of Mindfulness series, here we delve into critical thinking, alternative perspectives, and exposing collective blind spots in our field. While occasionally provocative, our intention is never to insult or disrespect beliefs. Join us for an honest debate where we aspire to grow and stay true to our shared intention.

10 comments

Martie Adler
 

First of all, thank you Mo for speaking up and out, I appreciate it.  I have long been adamant that mindfulness and meditation are two different things......mindfulness is a way of being.  Meditation is a practice, regardless of what tradition one may follow, that can certainly assist us in being mindful.  In this light, I see and understand your thoughts on secular mindfulness, and concur.  I see nothing but positive results by separating secular mindfulness and Buddhist teachings; those who wish to partake in each of these practices will continue to receive all that they receive.  Why would there be a competition?  These are two distinctly different practices that many have been following long before it became commercialized.  It is unfortunate that this too has become a polarizing discussion.

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Mo Edjlali
Staff
 

Thanks for your comments, Martie, l believe its time to address this question openly and hope to provoke some thought and self-examination. 

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Richard
 

I will re-read and think about this....however, my first impression is that the premise is based on a false dichotomy, an unnecessary separation of the tree from its roots.

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Mo Edjlali
Staff
 

Thanks for your comments Richard, I will be curious how your thoughts develop around this idea.  I see it differently, I see the entanglement as not only unnecessary but fundamentally threatening the future of both Buddism and Mindfulness. The direction things are heading is concerning. 

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Irene Brown
 

I almost cried when I read this. I have been 'banging on' as many would say about stealth Buddhism for more than 5 years, in fact since I was trained as a Mindfulness Teacher by a well known UK organisation only to discover mid way through the year long course that certain concepts being held as essentially secular are in fact totally derived from Triratna, the UK organisation that used to be Western Order Buddhism. I questioned this and had a horrendous time as a result, being told the teachers and mentors knew better than I, and eventually gaslighting me and even threatening not to certificate me. I objected on moral grounds, and believe I suffered a moral injury as a result. This organisation presents its training as secular. Its not. Sadly as I went further in the field I discovered this organisation to be by far from unusual and in fact this notion that what is on offer is secular while a very minor scrape at the surface and soon Buddhism pops up is extremely (and worryingly) common. I believe the teaching and training of Mindfulness teachers should be totally divested from any connection to or reliance on Buddhism. Those organisations who wish to offer Mindfulness the Buddhist way should be up front and transparent about what they offer and not cloak it in obscure terms or try to pass Buddhism off as secular. I do not believe in such a thing as secular Buddhism. My heartfult thanks in presenting this statement!

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Mo Edjlali
Staff
 

Irene, thank you for sharing your experience. You are not alone! I've heard similar stories from many others over the decade I have done this work. I have seen these dynamics firsthand in my various roles with Mindful Leader and other organizations. Those who are Buddhist or lean towards Buddhism often struggle to understand how non-Buddhists feel excluded and discriminated against. They see nothing wrong because, in a sense, they hold a privileged position in this context.  I, too, have had similar experiences of being gaslighted and have discovered that pretty much all major mindfulness training institutions, including MBSR, are heavily entangled with Buddhist teachings, teachers, and institutions.  At Mindful Leader, we are committed to addressing these issues and providing a truly inclusive, ethical, and transparent path. 

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Courtnee Hawkins
 

This is very timely and I’m grateful for the stance/approach that Mindful Leader takes. I’ve become disappointed with the commercialization and capitalism around learning and/or participating in the practice. Everything from retreats to certifications (taught heavily by Buddhist teachers) is becoming more exclusive due to cost.  The evidence based benefits of mindfulness are available to all— and taking the practice to underserved communities becomes less of a concern when dollars and profitability are attached. Thanks for this article. 

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Mo Edjlali
Staff
 

Thanks for your comments, Courtnee. Capitalism has its pros and cons, in a true capitalistic system there ought to be pressure to drive the cost down, increase the quality and meet the needs of the market/ community.  In a spiritual system, there is much concern about the effects of materialism and power and safeguards including providing free/donatation-based teachings and to create a separation of material power / status and spiritual power / status.  The mixing is where we get the current state of our field and what I believe is an existential threat to the future of Mindfulness and the integrity of Buddism. 

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Bernard Cantin
 

Interesting article.

See the recent, related article, which might be proposing somewhat the opposite of what your article suggests, namely to see how mindfulness and spirituality and religion might actually be related ("Neuroscientists must not be afraid to study religion": https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-024-02153-7). I should note that I find that mindfulness and meditation are very close, that meditation is part of most if not all spiritual/religious traditions. While I understand your concerns, my experience is that secularism might not be fully prepared to handle tough questions that meditation/mindfulness questions help uncover, such as: "what is the self"? Also, it seems that secularism has also become a kind of religion. 

Being mindful involves being really, really clear about one's own beliefs, whether organized or not.

Thanking you for your work.

Bernard


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Mo Edjlali
Staff
 

Thanks for sharing this article, Bernard, and your thoughts.  I appreciate being challenged, and the sharing of good articles.  However I read the article and do not see the connection you are attempting to make.  I don't see the opposite -  I believe this article supports my stance. I agree with the importance and significance of scientific inquiry into the neurological effects of spiritual practice. In this article, I explore contemplative science, and our stance is that some individuals will have a religious or spiritual experience through mindfulness and meditation, and that is ok.  They ought to be responsible for how they interpret their experience, some people will interpret it differently.  We want to honor and respect the individual's religious/spiritual or philosophical beliefs, whatever they are, and they can have their own experience and interpretation. However, you bring up an interesting point - is it the responsibility of the teacher to address the tough questions that meditation/mindfulness might help uncover?  Especially if these are extensential / spiritual or metaphysical? 

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